Jailed Mom Symbolizes the Rot of War

by , December 04, 2009

When feminists were fighting to get women more integrated into the military and closer to combat 15 years ago, would they have considered taking away children from single mothers so they could go to war a giant leap for "women’s lib"?

Probably not. When Rep. Pat Schroeder, Sara Lister, and their coterie of can-do ladies were ramming their fists against the green glass ceiling of the U.S. military, it was all about peacetime policy negotiations. President Bill Clinton was in office, and the closest things to battle were dropping bombs on Yugoslavia and launching female cadets into hostile, all-male military academies.

Today, those 1990s trailblazers have everything they wanted – and more. Women are serving in combat – unofficially of course, as military police, interrogators, and prison guards in Iraq and Afghanistan – and dying and coming home with the same wounds and scars their male counterparts have to contend with. Unfortunately, these women aren’t celebrated as vociferously in today’s PC-driven media culture as one would think.

But the explanation is easy: the liberals who fought to get them there are now horrified to think their efforts have culminated in a generation of women fighting for a Republican empire-building exercise gone bad. Conservatives, who never wanted women in the military in the first place, don’t have much incentive to point out they lost that political fight and mothers and daughters are getting their limbs blown off in a sinkhole war they championed for the last eight years.

And neither side wants to talk about what the shock integration of more than 200,000 women (11 percent of the total force) into the Long War has wrought: the gender discrimination and harassment, illicit sexual behavior and relationships, heightened tension, sexual assaults, and pregnancies that occur at home and overseas, mostly on the massive forward operating bases that dot the U.S. area of operation. It’s been a taboo subject that neither liberals nor conservatives see much gain in invoking. Two years ago, I did a piece for The American Conservative exploring these and other sensitive issues in our co-ed military. One could say it was pretty much DOA at the newsstands.

But now comes 21-year-old Army Spc. Alexis Hutchinson, who sits in military confinement today because she refused to give up her baby to foster care so she could fight in Afghanistan. Without knowing it, she has crystallized the struggle of many young women and mothers in the military today. She forces us to take a long look at what we have accepted as the post-feminist military vision, prompting serious questions about the ravaging effects of Long War life on women, families, and men, too.

First, what have we become as a nation if we completely ignore the laws of human nature and force our mothers to choose between war and their own children? Yes, we know she "signed on the dotted line." Ask not if it was legal, but if it was morally justifiable.

Second, what kind of war are we waging – what kind of strain must our armed forces be under – that our (volunteer) Army is so desperate as to throw mothers in jail, provoke painful divorces and custody battles, and smash up families year after year, threatening the very "values" and liberties these men and women are supposedly out there to defend?

"It’s becoming more and more common," said Dahr Jamail, journalist and author of Will to Resist. He contends the Army is under so much pressure to deploy warm bodies to the war zone that it has become arbitrary and even reckless – even sending some 43,000 soldiers deemed "non-deployable for medical reasons" overseas. Hutchinson is hardly the only mother caught in this vise. According to the Army Times, there are 1,800 single mothers deployed today.

"[The Army] is literally getting anyone they can possibly get to send overseas. They have to make them be there, and we should be prepared to hear more stories like [Hutchinson's] on a regular basis."

Could Have Seen This Coming

The plight of Alexis Hutchinson is no surprise to people who have been tracking the struggle of women in war for the last several years. It has been an easy struggle to dismiss because most women volunteer, overcome the aforementioned obstacles, are proud of their service, and go on to fulfilling civilian careers, end of story.

But individual transcendence aside, there is a tempest roiling under the surface and it says everything about how the military establishment has been forced to assimilate women into its ranks and the poor job it has done so far to accommodate them and the male-dominated institution itself, which was genuinely "shocked" over the last decade by this new landscape.

And it’s not all the military’s fault. There was an early, policy-driven emphasis on reaching a "genderless" state in the mixed ranks, encouraging the system and individual commanders – however indirectly – to gloss over women’s issues as they emerged. Alternately, when women were treated differently than their male counterparts in the field, tensions naturally arose and threatened unit cohesion.

Clearly, as civilian policymakers and the brass continue to promulgate war, there has hardly been a "peace time" to reflect upon and adapt to this new reality, meaning a generation of young women have become guinea pigs for the new wartime meat grinder with little thought to spare.

Not surprisingly, it took a veterans organization – the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – to put the struggle in perspective.

In its recent report, "Women Warriors: Supporting She Who Has Borne the Battle" [.pdf], the IAVA brought together some disparate data points. Over 40 percent of women in the military are mothers, and more than 30,000 single mothers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since the war began (as a rule, the military does not recruit single mothers, but as many as one in 10 female soldiers get pregnant a year, according to 2002 figures). There are still no hard and fast figures about how many women get pregnant on deployment (though some recent UK figures indicated 10 pregnant women have been sent home in the last six months from their overseas assignments).

Military women experience higher rates of divorce than their male counterparts, as well as higher rates of mental health problems, including "military sexual trauma" while in service, according to the report. As for mothers, the Army still only allows mothers of newborns four months before they can be deployed. A family plan must be established and agreed to, but if it falls apart, like Alexis Hutchinson’s reportedly did, foster care may be the only alternative to violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) outright. Just ask the American Bar Association’s military family legal eagle Patricia Apy, who told the Army Times just this week that "there are a lot of amazing foster parents in this country who care for children placed with them."

For sure, many who had read Hutchinson’s story reacted coolly: She knew what she was getting into when she enlisted… Where is the father? … She had agreed to future deployments and must face the consequences like everyone else. If not, discipline will fall apart; the readiness of the armed forces is on the line.

"The court of public opinion has spoken and said, the military should get rid of her and anyone else who feels that they can’t live up to their obligation. We can’t win a war with soldiers who refuse deployment. She needs to pay for her crime," wrote military blogger and veteran John Rodda after soliciting comments from his (presumably) military/veteran readership.

But this isn’t about one woman – or even a hundred – who have seemingly violated the code. This is about fostering a dangerously devolving culture of broken, mismanaged, and disillusioned individuals and families. Take Sgt. Heath Carter, interviewed recently by Jamail, who is awaiting a court-martial because he went AWOL for his child. He had reportedly requested a "compassionate reassignment" to Georgia so he could be closer to his daughter, who suffers from a life-threatening disorder and was living with Carter’s first wife under reportedly unsafe conditions.

He wasn’t fighting deployment; he was struggling against a series of domestic postings that had taken him further away from his daughter, for whom he was fighting for custody. After numerous rejections, he went AWOL and won custody in court. He returned to base and, according to Jamail, brandished the court documents as proof that his intent was honorable. Nevertheless, like Hutchinson, he sits in a military detention center on criminal charges.

Of course, not all cases are so severe. However, many young men and women enlist in hopes of achieving personal stability and fulfillment but end up disenchanted and dejected, and for various reasons – money is a big one – they’re unable to leave the increasingly walled-off military "nation" to become a productive part of the American social fabric outside. In other words, the promised individual liberation and empowerment has become, for many, a perverse sliding slope of dependency.

Again, it takes an insider to crack through the BS. In a recent online article, military wife Sarah Gilbert shared a litany of stories by men and women who were embroiled in varying degrees of childcare/custody/marital entanglements and crises, all against the backdrop of unending tours of duty:

"These soldiers are not unusual in my husband’s unit. Rather, they represent the majority of the enlisted parents he knows. In fact, we’re the only family he can think of in which two parents are in the home. Broken relationships, struggling families, young people without much of a plan for their lives – these are the rule here, the lifeblood of the U.S. Army. …

"So many single parents in the Army are too young and ignorant of their rights and duties to rationally evaluate their options, or to negotiate ironclad agreements with families and friends who must care for their children. And those families’ and friends’ responsibilities are immense."

Before we blame Hutchinson and others for making the wrong decisions, remember this, the military, under pressure to sustain a two-front war for nearly a decade, has offered enormous incentives to young people to enlist. A teen out of high school or an unemployed young twenty-something looking at the bleak signs of recession all around her and no chance for higher education – or worse, mouths to feed at home – might find a $14,000 signing bonus and free four-year college tuition quite difficult to resist.

Furthermore, numerous reports over the years indicate that desperate recruiters have not been averse to encouraging kids to lie on their applications or misleading them about the prospects of overseas assignments in order to seal the deal.

And don’t forget those who have sought out the National Guard or Army Reserves to supplement family incomes, only to be told it was their "duty" to give up the security of a full-time job to be on call for indefinite deployments.

Which brings us back to the question: is this the kind of "equal opportunity" feminists had in mind when they finally cut through that military glass ceiling? Just ask 21-year-old Alexis Hutchinson, mother of a 10-month-old now in the custody of the state. She has plenty of time now behind bars to come up with the appropriate answer.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos